Becoming a World Traveler In Dragon’s Dogma

For what feels like a year now, I’ve been working my way through Dragon’s Dogma. I tend to play in bursts, usually doing nothing else for a weekend or for a few week nights in a row, and then moving on to somehting else for a while. Most of the time, I wind up getting distracted by a new game that feels more urgent than the relatively ancient Dragon’s Dogma which doesn’t even have a release year for its sequel. One time, I got frustrated with a bug and losing three quarters of an hour of inventory management, so I set it aside long enough that I forgot what had caused the bug in the first place and promptly ran into it again when I went back. I’d saved more recently, this time, so it was easier to fix the problem, but it did keep me from diving too deeply into the game that round. The past couple weeks, though, as I try to save some of my recently acquired Switch games for my impending trip, I’ve focused more of my time on Dragon’s Dogma and discovered that the real reason I stop playing most days is because it takes so damn long to get anywhere.

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I’m Tired and Sad, So Let’s Talk About The Legend of Zelda: Episode 20

I cracked the Breath of the Wild open (metaphorically speaking) for the first time in a while. I was at the end of a very tiring day, I was excited about the recently released trailer, and I just wanted to provide myself with a little comfort. I figured at least thinking about Breath of the Wild would be relaxing, since I love to just wander around the world, doing whatever catches my attention. As I loaded my most recent save file, I was reminded that I hadn’t finish my most-recent play-through of Master Mode. I don’t remember why I stopped, though I suspect I just got distracted by another game (since that’s why I usually stop playing something), but I realized I still had a long way to go before I was finished with that run. I closed the game shortly after that. I felt more inclined to start the Master Mode file over than continue it, but I also knew I wasn’t really in the right place to make that decision, then. Playing the game all the way through is a big committment and I needed rest, not another item on my to-do list.

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I’m Tired and Sad, So Let’s Talk About The Legend of Zelda: Episode 15

Things have been rough lately. I’ve made some personal gains, but it frequently feels like the world is crumbling around us as violence, hatred, and complicit indifference take center stage to the exclusion of mere decency and tolerance. I don’t have a quick answer to those problems, I don’t have the ability to make great change by myself, and I can barely get past my own anger and trauma enough to work on taking what are (in my opinion) the bare minimum steps a decent person can take in response to the world we find ourself in. What I can do, though, is provide a small escape. So today, when I’m tired and sad because of the world we find ourselves in, let’s talk about the power of the horizon in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

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Open-World Situation Building In Dungeons & Dragons

After nearly two months, I got to run my Sunday night Dungeons and Dragons campaign again. After side-sessions, many missed sessions, and a whole lot of tumult in everyone’s life, we were able to gather again and return to the dark fantasy and mild horror stylings of the world I’d spent over a year slowly developing. I had fun, my players had fun, there was a lot of lucky rolls, the player characters survived a lot of nasty damage, there were some clutch reactions and actions, and only one player character died in a boss battle they were absolutely unprepared for! That’s the danger of open-world scenarios, you know. You can accidentally wander into the desecrated temple to the not-evil gods right as a priest of what is essentially malicious entropy completes a ritual that temporarily grants him a huge deal of power in a side-realm. All without any of the information that contextualizes any of that so even when you do win, you’re not sure if it matters or not, or even how to do anything as a result.

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The Power of Infrastructure!

One of the things I enjoy most about Valheim is the simple truth that infrastructure is the key to the development of society. It might be a wild thing to say about a video game marketed as a viking-esque survival game with combat and a space program, but it’s a simple truth about any world that has location-specific resources. Infrastructure exists on some level in most survival and collection games, but it is usually fairly basic or a natural part of exploration. For instance, most infrastructure in a game like Minecraft is limited to base building, marking places you’ve explored, and creating access points to resource nodes. While a lot of this changes around in larger scale multiplayer scenarios, valheim is so far the only survival game I’ve ever played where creating infrastructure is not required but is incredibly beneficial.

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UnEpic Was the Opposite of Mundane

Do you like RPGs? Do you like the idea of having a fully customizable character you can turn into a super-specialist or a jack of all trades without having to sacrifice character effectiveness?  Do you like Fantasy that is aware of the typical tropes and has a delightful mixture of falling in line with said tropes and standing them on their heads, both in such a way that it makes even the most tired trope feel fun an exciting? Do you like all of those things and side-scroll action, too (AKA, a “Metroidvania” style game)? If you answered yes to all of these questions or found the potential combination of them intriguing, then I have a game for you to try out!

UnEpic is all of those things and more. It is a side-scrolling RPG starring Daniel (at least, that’s the name he gets in the promo materials, you get to name your character when you start the game but that’s mostly for save file reference), a typical video gamer who got transported into the game when he went to the bathroom during one of his first ever tabletop gaming sessions. He finds himself in a castle and, deciding someone must have slipped something into his drink or food, decides that he’s hallucinating so blithely wanderings further into the castle. After a few rooms, he happens upon an evil spirit (AKA Zera) that tries to possess him, but it fails to do anything more than get stuck in his body. As he moves deeper into the castle, slowly becoming convinced he’s not hallucinating, he eventually figures out what he needs to do in order to get home. As he does, there are a number of humorous scenes as he and the dark spirit sharing his body try to trick each other. Daniel wants help navigating the castle and the spirit wants to kill him so it can leave his body and inhabit another that it can actually control. Daniel usually comes out on top since, ultimately, it is up to the player to decide whether or not to follow the Spirit’s advice, and the spirit is initially only trying to get Daniel killed. As the game goes on, the Spirit starts mixing in actual help with the incorrect instructions, making it much more difficult to figure out what is good advice and what isn’t.

As he explores the castle and learns more about what it’s going to take to get him home (and it’s fairly early that he learns he has to defeat the lord of the castle), he find money, items or gear, and magic to help him on his way. A lot of it is fairly typical fantasy fare, stuff like swords, bows, heavy armor, and more specifically named stuff like “Tunic of the Ranger” that makes you better at using bows and even unique stuff like Excalibur and an axe you get for, uh, helping out Goblins during mating season. Did I mention this game requires you to enter your age when you navigate to its page in Steam? Definitely not a game for young children, what with the references to sex, alcohol, and drugs. Fun fact, it’s also on the Switch now and plays even better on the handheld, wide-screen glory that is the Switch than it did on the computer.

Anyway.  As Daniel explores the castle, he discovers he needs to defeat the lord of the castle and, in order to do so, must free 8 light spirits from their prisons. From there, it’s all finding keys, exploring secret rooms, trying not to get murdered by traps, and finding the right gear so you can kick as much ass as possible while trying to figure out how to make it through rooms that randomly drop rocks on your head and through dungeons where every door you find is locked by a key that isn’t the one you just picked up. For the most part, in terms of gameplay, it’s nothing special. It’s fun, light-hearted take on dungeon delving is what makes it stand out. There are games with smoother controls, more intuitive interfaces, better layouts, and better levels, but this one hits the “satirizing fantasy” niche better than most similar games I’ve ever played.

The protagonist’s video gamer roots show in the way he tries to address his problems and the game’s mechanics catch him and any similar players off guard when it starts to introduce a lot of rules more commonly associated with tabletop games like Dungeons and Dragons. For instance, skeletons take (slightly) reduced damage from swords and spears, but extra damage from blunter weapons like maces or clubs. Bows require targeting for enemies that aren’t straight in front of you, which can be a little frustrating because you might have to cycle through available targets before getting to the one you want, but the fact that you can miss a slug crawling across the ground when firing straight ahead is the first real evidence you get of the game’s excellent hit-box management. Never will you take a hit you feel you shouldn’t have taken and never will you hit something unless you see your weapon enter into the enemy’s model. It can be incredibly risky to use a close-range melee weapon since that requires getting within striking distance of most of the enemies in the game, but they usually do more damage and have better bonuses or stats than spears and bows.

It’s a fun game with relatively simple mechanics that don’t take long to pick up and really start to flow smoothly once you get used to swapping between items in your shortcut menus and rapidly targeting enemies with ranged attacks while avoiding the enemies closing in on you in melee. It even has a ton of fun little references to other games and media liberally sprinkled throughout. Some of them have been a little obfuscated in the Steam and Switch versions (the only versions I’ve played, but I read a few articles about it while trying to figure out if the spirit’s original name was a reference to something) for copyright reasons, but most of them are still there. There’s even one a few minutes into the game, when you fight your first enemy. I won’t spoil it, but it really sets the tone of the game.

If you’ve got ten bucks (or less, if you get it during a Steam sale event) burning a hole in your pocket and want several hours of relaxing dungeon exploration, I recommend checking out UnEpic. It’s not going to blow your mind, reveal the secrets of the cosmos as they relate to your inner-most heart, or make you acknowledge the secrets hidden deep inside that you won’t even admit you’re hiding to yourself (we’ll leave that to Celeste), but you’ll have a good time as long as you don’t mind a bit of a bratty protagonist who keeps getting shown up by the evil spirit possessing him.

Tabletop Highlight: Don’t Split The Party

“Don’t split the party” is probably one of the most common lines throughout all D&D games. There is a built-in fear, for almost every (even moderately) experienced player, that splitting up will lead to certain doom for the party or members of the party. The idea of strength as a group holds true in common media depictions. Everyone dreads the moment in a horror movie when the future victims split up for whatever reason. Even in Scooby-Doo, nothing good happens when the gang splits up to search for clues. It is almost always the precursor to them getting chased around the mansion/factory/cave/woods by the monster they’re trying to investigate. The idea is also expressed in more real terms via phrases such as “divide and conquer” and pretty much any time someone conquered a bunch of Europe. However, history is also full of examples of when splitting up was a great idea. Guerrilla warfare has used successfully on numerous occasions. Breaking empires down into smaller administrative chunks for management is always a great idea until the person who built the empire dies, at which point the whole thing falls apart–providing a wonderful example of both sides of the idea.

In D&D, there are plenty of reasons to stick together as a group. Given that most parties have a diverse set of skills, it makes survival much easier since someone with decent perception skills is going to be able to spot the monster sneaking up on the party’s camp and someone else will be the one to go confront it. Generally speaking, the same person spotting the problem isn’t the same person solving it. At the same time, having multiple people able to attempt something like that perception skill check makes it more likely that at least one person will pass and only one person needs to pass in order for the group to know. Unless the person who passes is trying to get the party killed or keep something for themselves. There’s not much you can do about that degree of undermining, though. Most combat encounters and even the rules about combat encounters are geared toward groups. Flanking bonuses, assist actions, melee versus ranged combat, distractions, and mid-battle healing are all things that require a group to properly use.

However, when it comes to exploring, it is often a good idea for the party to split up. If there is scouting that needs to be done, it would be better to leave the tank behind. All that armor is only going to make too much noise. If there’s a door that needs to be held, the tank is great at that, and the rogue is better off finding another way around so they can hit the enemies from the back. If there is research to be done, perhaps the wizard or cleric should be left to their own devices while the rest of the party takes care of other business. Maybe there’s a maze and the party needs to figure out which way to go. If the routes are narrow, best to leave most of the party behind while one person scouts ahead. If there’s a combat encounter about to happen, maybe the rogue should sneak off to make sure the enemies aren’t going to receive any reinforcements.

There are a lot of times when splitting up makes a lot of sense for a D&D party, though they don’t always match up with the examples seen in the primary world. Guerrilla warfare utilizes strike forces and a D&D party is pretty much the epitome of a self-sufficient strike force, so there’s no need to break it down further. Additionally, few D&D parties ever actually form their own empire or conquer nations. There’s little need to delegate or decentralize your government if the most you’re governing is a base of some kind.

Party splits larger than the ones I outlined are a bit more difficult to manage in a D&D session, though. If half of the party decides to explore the underdark because they’re not good-aligned and want to figure out where their demon-adjacent target went, then you should probably come up with something for the paladin and super-good scout to do since they’re going to get instantly busted if they go to the underdark. I wound up running split sessions for a couple of weeks, and had to come up with some way to give everyone something important to do. Their decision to split the party helped give shape to the rest of the campaign because I needed something relevant for the above-ground party to handle. The more recent split I’m dealing with, the scout towing the rogue’s body back to the base of some druids for reincarnation and their subsequent slow trip back (a Halfling corpse is easier to carry than a half-elf person), will not be so easily managed. The other half of the party is currently camped right on top of a dungeon that is aware of their presence. They have captives from their previous forays into the dungeon. There’s at least one young-ish black dragon hanging around somewhere near them. All they have is a camp of NPC hirelings and a DMPC cleric they hired to Remove Curses and Raise Dead. Plus, the party-members waiting at the dungeon are the go-getters, so it isn’t like they’re just going to wait for the rogue and scout to get back.

Party splitting can be fun, but it can also make a LOT of extra work for the DM and slow down sessions to a crawl, since each sub-group doesn’t have access to the same information anymore. Splitting the players up is the easiest way to handle that, in my opinion. It just requires copious notes since it can be easy to mix up what everyone is doing and what each group knows. That’s usually why I try to reunite the party by the end of every session if I can. Makes my life so much easier and keeps things running smoothly.